A Sunday or two ago, I sat at the back of the church, where people with rambunctious and unpredictable toddlers tend to sit. I doled out Goldfish one by one as I waited for services to begin, occasionally looking up for familiar faces in the undulation of swarming believers.
A mother chased a runaway toddler. One row ahead, an old man leaned over the back of his seat and shouted a greeting to another old man who was less than a foot away. One little boy chased another in a flurry of Sunday school papers. The cacophony of human noise that precedes worship service reminds me of an orchestra warming up, a swelling of movement and sound that sets the stage, opens the senses and ripens anticipation.
It was in the midst of this jumble of activity that I caught sight of her bubble gum pink suit out of the corner of my eye.
She shuffled unsteadily towards me, taking tiny careful steps, watching her feet as she went. White soft-soled shoes scraped against the carpet. She clutched her white purse tightly to her chest with both hands. About every three steps, she stopped completely and looked around, bewildered. Her middle-aged daughter walked behind her, patiently and gently guiding her towards a seat.
When she was within hand shaking distance, she stopped and looked into me. Not at me, not beyond me, but into me. It felt oddly disconcerting to be the object of such an intense gaze at such close proximity. I gave her a smile. Her face remained expressionless. I could tell she was mentally flipping through page after page of blank Rolodex cards looking for my face. Nothing. Her daughter nudged her elbow and encouraged her towards a seat across from us and she turned away.
I stole glances at her over the head of my three-year-old as worship services began. She sat erect and still, here but not. A shell of human being, robbed of that which makes life meaningful.
For some reason, I thought of the empty locust shells that I used to find in the summer time when I was growing up. I wondered about her, her life, the memories she had treasured up in her heart over a lifetime, faces and names and events that had evaporated and vanished as morning dew does in the bright light of day.
As the congregation began to sing “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” I heard her trembling sweet soprano voice rise above the others — distinct and clear, word for word, note for note. I looked over at her, eyes closed, face turned upward. Not a locust shell. Her heart had not forgotten.
The magic of music had unlocked the dark prison of dementia if only for a few glorious minutes on a Sunday morning.
I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.